After 90 minutes of debate, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday narrowly voted to renew a five-year contract with CSRS/Garrard Program Management to manage school construction through the end of 2018.
The School Board voted 6-5 in favor of the renewal, opting not to seek proposals from other construction management firms, which those on the losing side were pushing.
School Board member Barbara Freiberg had abstained when the board deadlocked on the contract renewal on Feb. 7. On Thursday, she ended up voting yes.
After the meeting, she said her main concern was to research assertions that CSRS had earned unwarranted money through change orders to contracts. She said she was satisfied that change orders awarded were within bounds, that some actually benefited the school system, and that CSRS did not enrich itself in granting them.
On Thursday, the board also voted unanimously to spend about $8.1 million to use Valley Park Alternative School as the temporary home for Lee High School while that school is rebuilt. Part of that money, about $3.7 million, would go to move displaced Valley Park students to vacant space at Town South Shopping Center at 1919 Staring Lane. The school system use to lease space in the shopping center for its alternative school.
In November, the board agreed to rebuild the old, rundown Lee High campus at 1105 Lee Drive, requiring a two-year relocation until construction finishes in summer 2015 at an estimated cost of $58.5 million. The old school is set to be demolished this summer.
CSRS/Garrard Program is managing the Lee High rebuilding as it has almost all school system construction since 1999. The joint partnership was hired soon after voters in 1998 first approved a 1-cent sales tax, of which 40 percent is earmarked for school construction. Its current five-year contract expires at the end of 2013. Thursday vote will spark negotiations for the new contract.
The school system had a committee evaluate the firm’s work in December and the review was generally favorable.
Voting in favor of renewing CSRS’s program manager contract were Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, Freiberg, Craig Freeman, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.
Voting against renewal were Jerry Arbour, Randy Lamana, Vereta Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Tarvald Smith.
Now, Superintendent Bernard Taylor and board President Tatman will negotiate a new contract. The current five-year contract, last renewed in 2008, calls for CSRS to be paid $6.6 million to manage hundreds of millions of dollars in construction work.
Taylor, who took over as superintendent in June, did not take a stance on whether to renew CSRS’s contract.
Ware-Jackson persuaded the supporters of the renewal to direct Taylor and Tatman to work new provisions into the contract. They include incentives for the firm to increase the percentage of minority and women-owned businesses used on school construction, to find ways to save the school system money overall, and to include other unspecified measures of accountability to give the contract “teeth,” she said.
The bulk of the discussion Thursday was dominated by opponents of the CSRS renewal.
Echoing other opponents, board Vice President Tarvald Smith said he thinks CSRS has done good work, but that seeking other proposals would save taxpayer’s money.
“Cream rises to the top,” he said.
Arbour made a similar point.
“We’re not dealing with our money,” Arbour said. “We’re not going into our wallets. We’re going into the taxpayer’s wallets.”
Lee was the most vocal opponent. She said that the school system can’t afford to spend money it doesn’t need to, noting that teachers haven’t gotten a pay raise in years and that board members like herself “have had to cut back on their travel.”
“We’ve gone out for (request for proposals) for everything else?” she said. “Why not the program manager’s contract?”
Bernard pointed out that the board hasn’t always sought outside bids, noting how in October 2011 it renewed earlier than it needed to Aramark’s much bigger $26.1 million contract for school maintenance, custodial and groundskeeping services.
Freeman also said that going out for proposals won’t necessarily yield a better deal.
Freeman, who took office in 2011, reminded the board of the controversy in 2010 when the board picked Mobile, Ala.-based Volkert to serve as the program manager for $19.1 million school repairs even though three other firms, including CSRS, asked for significantly lower fees.
Freeman’s comments prompted angry responses from Lee and Lamana, both on the board in 2010, who said the comments did not accurately reflect what happened then.
Nelson-Smith argued that the CSRS contract renewal runs counter to the school system’s strategic plan, which has been in draft form for 14 months and awaits the board’s approval.
“I urge my fellow board members to listen to their own words” Nelson-Smith said.